GMAT Tip of the Week: How Lennay Kekua Can Help You Ace the GMAT

As everyone is discussing this week, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed. As of this morning, the debate rages as to whether Te’o was complicit in the hoax that launched him to Lance-Armstrongian mythic status in the sports entertainment world or whether he was the victim of a Catfish-style prank. But we do know that Lennay Kekua isn’t real.

And we also know that her memory and aura can help you succeed on the GMAT.


Nearly every high school has a few dozen Lennay Kekuas. Boys with limited romantic experience, trying to keep up with their friends or have something to say in conversations or compensate for what they feel is a lack of maturity or masculinity, nearly always invent a Lennay Kekua to help them get through the day: “You don’t know her – she goes to a different high school.” “I met her this summer when I was staying at my cousin’s house.” “She lives in Canada, but she was visiting her grandmother who lives near me.”

And this phenomenon isn’t specific to just boys. Even Jan Brady of “The Brady Bunch” had her George Glass. There’s a little Lennay Kekua in all of us, a white lie we tell ourselves so that we fit in, we save face, we keep our confidence high. Lennay Kekua is the (not quite) living embodiment of the phrase “fake it ’til you make it.” And so as you take the GMAT, it’s important to keep Lennay Kekua with you, so to speak.

The GMAT is a test that shakes nearly everyone’s confidence. The adaptive nature of the testing system means that:

– Most of the questions you see will be challenging to you, as the test adapts to its perception of your ability level. You’ll see hard questions most of the day.

– Questions you perceive to be easy will therefore freak you out, as you’ll likely think that an easy question means the test doesn’t view your ability level as high.

– You’ll probably have to guess and move on a couple times, as the test doesn’t allow for you to skip a question and come back to it.

And all of the above have been major causes for concern among GMAT test-takers for years. Enter Lennay Kekua, the white lie you tell yourself to remain confident. She can take several important forms for you:

When a question seems too easy, tell yourself it’s only because you’re that good.

Difficulty on the GMAT is not about “perceived difficulty”, it’s about “statistical difficulty.” The algorithm doesn’t choose questions based on how difficult they may look, but based on statistical analysis of how other examinees in your ability range have scored on it. When a question looks easy, it’s a natural (but unproductive!!) reaction to see it as a limit on your ability, a signal that you’re performing at a level consistent with “easy” questions. But that’s very often not the case. You might well be that good at that type of question, or you might have sniffed out the trap answer quickly while others weren’t as quick to catch it. GMAT test-takers are generally pretty lousy at predicting how difficult questions truly are, so don’t let an easy-looking question shake your confidence. Even if you’re telling yourself a white lie by claiming that it’s only easy because you’re that good, the confidence that lie gives you is important – at the point you may have actually seen an easy question, the only way to save your score is to get some questions right, and so letting one easy-looking question shake your confidence and ruin your performance on the next few questions is counterproductive. Either way, if it looked easy because you were that good, or because it’s easy and you need to pick up your performance a little bit, a lack of confidence will hurt you and a bit of false bravado can only help you, so tell yourself you’re that good. Choose the path of confidence.

Or, when a question seems too easy, tell yourself “it’s an experimental.”

One other major component of the CAT testing system is that it relies on unscored, experimental questions to ready new questions for use in the CAT. Several questions on your GMAT will not count toward your score, but your responses will be logged so that the test administrators can determine those questions’ difficulty levels and even their validity. Some experimental questions never make it to prime time (more on that later), and they all need to be tested on users of multiple ability levels. If a question was designed to be “easy” but half the people scoring over 700 get it wrong, that tells the test administrators that they need to fix the problem or update their view of its difficulty. So even if you’re scoring well above 700, there’s a good chance the system will serve you an easy question or two at some point during the test because they need to see how someone as high-performing as you scores on that experimental question. So, again, don’t let crippling doubt creep in when you see an easy-looking question. If it helps you move on confidently, just tell yourself it’s an experimental.

Similarly, when a question seems impossible, tell yourself it’s an experimental.

You may well see a question that you feel is impossible — maybe you think it’s missing a necessary piece of information in order to solve it, or you see two answers that both seem to be 100% correct. These questions can be score-killers, as they have the potential to waste a lot of your time *and* they shake a lot of your confidence. If after careful examination you’re thinking to yourself “I don’t think this is a fair question” or “I don’t think this can be solved,” it’s a good idea to save confidence and time by letting yourself believe that it’s experimental. Make your best choice and move on. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, some questions do get tossed out after going through the experimental phase – what looked like a fair, challenging questions to authors and editors may be rooted out as something that, statistically, looks unfair and perhaps flawed. It’s not overwhelmingly common, but it happens. So if you’re about to waste another few minutes of time, stamina, and confidence, tell yourself that there’s a good chance it’s experimental and that it may even be a flawed question, and pick up your spirits and save your time for future questions. (NOTE: you obviously can’t do this on every question…some of them will count. But once or twice? It’s almost always better to get a question wrong confidently and within a reasonable amount of time than to get a question right after 5-6 minutes and after incurring the stress and anxiety of putting so much time into one question.)

When you think the only way to solve a Problem Solving* question is to employ a rule you think is true, tell yourself it is.

It happens even to great test-takers – that moment when you’re looking at a math problem and think “I don’t know if you can do this step, but I think you can.” And on a timed, pressure-filled test like the GMAT, that decision of “can I do this?” can be nerve-wracking. Now, if you have the time and ability to check your work and prove the rule to be true (or false), that’s what you should do. But if the clock is ticking and you need to make a decision and you can honestly say “I don’t think there’s any way to solve this problem unless you can _______________,” it’s in your best interest of time and confidence to make that decision. Again, this isn’t true of every question or even most questions, but for those 3-4 questions that have the potential to waste several minutes of your time and destroy your confidence or demeanor, it’s better to get it wrong quickly and confidently than the other way around. With an average of around 2 minutes per question, if you get a question right in 5 minutes and don’t feel good about it, it can have a particularly adverse impact on your score. So if you need to convince yourself that you’re doing the right thing, feeling that that’s the only way you could ever solve that problem, it’s probably the right decision.

(* – on Data Sufficiency questions it’s a different game, as “this problem cannot be solved” is actually an option. On Problem Solving, if you need to get to an actual answer and you see that the only path is through a rule that you think is probably true, you might as well say it’s true.)

Many a GMAT performance has been ruined by shaken confidence – an unraveling that comes from thinking a question is too easy or freaking about because a few questions seem too hard. Like every junior varsity boy who’s ever created his own Lennay Kekua to stay confident, remember this – you’re not alone in feeling anxiety about your situation, and so if you need to tell yourself a couple white lies to get through the day it’s well worth it.

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